A Bug’s Life

Like sharks, ants haven't physically changed much and are still successful after at least 60 million years. Workers, on the average, live about one year. In some species they can live for four to five years. Some queens live longer than 20 years. One of the largest known ant colonies is on the Ishikari Coast of Hokkaido. With “306,000,000 ants, there are 1,080,000 queens in 45,000 interconnected nests over an area of 2.7 square kilometers. “ Highly adaptive to their environment, when moved to a different climate or location, ants can swiftly acclimatize. Resistant to radiation, ants will be giving the cockroaches a run for their money. They can adjust their environment by controlling the airflow through their nests, as well as, regulating the temperature and humidity. They build mounds. They clear pathways.

Through a complex system of chemical communication and constant feedback, an ant colony regulates the amount of worker and soldiers, and controls the timing of production of males and fertile females. Some are brutally ruthless survival machines. When food is plentiful for honey ants, young adults are stuffed until they get huge and heavy and become living food-storage containers.

No single ant is "calling the shots" yet colonies grow more proficient over time. Although individual ants live only 12 months, the colony actually develops and "learns" for up to 15 years. Collectively they build nests that are engineering wonders, able to sustain ambient temperature and comfortable levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide while the nest grows. In fact special castes of large, powerful soldiers are bred and side by side with these soldiers, the workers will fight for the survival of the colony, despite the consequences to personal safety or survival. Some colonies use chemical propaganda in warfare. There is no mercy and no surrender, enemies are killed and babies eaten. Some ants steal the eggs and larvae of other species and raise them, as slaves. Ants are debatably the most thriving creatures in the world.

All Signal, Lots of Noise

Biologists call this emergence behavior which happens "when individuals combine to form a whole and create something unexpected or smarter then (sic) its individual parts, or a relationship that is beneficial to the independent pieces over a pattern of time." Emergent behavior has been studied in biological organisms from ants to slime molds. In the case of insect colonies it is the outcome of “swarm logic.” Low-level workers in due course produces ant colonies that labor, ones where the trash is collected and dumped outside of town and the deceased are taken to a “cemetery” even further away. The worker ants generate all of these organizations and systems without perceiving the big picture. All that is necessary is an adequate amount of low-level ants for lots of trial and error, as well as the freedom to succeed and fail within the framework of a few simple rules.

Swarm logic (SWOHRM law.jik) is a noun phrase which is currently defined as, “The process by which a large number of unintelligent entities can, by working together without central direction, produce intelligent action.” It occurs whenever a group shows evidence of organized behavior outside of the capabilities of any individual member. Several sociologists have taken this term and applied same logic to other disorganized systems—like the Internet, for example. They postulate that emergence happens when relationships are formed from the bottom-up and not top-down. Complexity is determined through simplicity. The same laws are obeyed universally and the unchanged swarm logic is at work. The earliest known citation is from a 1995 review of Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World:

    "Technology and biology are becoming one. (Kelly) pursues this notion through to the idea of 'swarm systems', collective structures like beehives and ant colonies in which the behaviour of the whole emerges from the operations of the individual elements but does not have a simple, causal and predictable relationship with them. ... Kelly convincingly argues that contemporary business practice, for example, is benefiting from the application of swarm logic to manufacturing structures and to traditional company hierarchies. Swarm logic underpins the Internet and could significantly transform our understanding and operation of television."
    —John Wyver, "Lights, camera, action, e-mail?".

Computer programs at sites like Amazon.com take advantage of swarm logic by examining buying habits and then suggesting purchases, “You liked John Grisham, try Along Came a Spider. Emergent properties of merit-based social interaction beget social order and from it a compelling self-organizing principle. Corey Doctorow called it "whuffie" in his science fiction work, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom which is a fluid, complex system of cultural currency and reputation. One defining example of this theory at work is at Slashdot and "karma", where the community rates the postings. Several sociologists theorize that it is fast becoming clear that lives revolve around the powers of emergence. They hold up the cities inhabited, the media frenzies suffered and the games played as evidence for how individual actions without central planning often build a wonderfully adaptive mutual intelligence. “Local turns out to be the key term in understanding the power of swarm logic. We see emergent behavior in systems like ant colonies when the individual agents in the system pay attention to their immediate neighbors rather than wait for orders from above. They think locally and act locally, but their collective action produces global behavior.”

Everything2 displays swarm logic with its Voting/Experience System and honor roll system. E2 arrives at the core of what’s happening by using group intelligence as a way to filter out the inanity, and intelligence rising to the top. Actions are performed together smart ideas emerge without one central direction. As E2 is wired into a hivish network, many things will emerge that users, as mere neurons in the network, don't expect, don't understand, can't control, or don't even perceive. That's the price for any emergent hive mind.

Ants in your pants

In 2001 author Steven Johnson released the phrase swarm logic into the lexical wilderness. In Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software . Johnson explores the artificial emergence which is bringing sweeping cultural and political change in its wake. He recognizes the problem of making analogies from relatively brainless ants to self-reflecting human beings who have a free will and are able to make decisions that are not based on simple exchanges of pheromone, the chemical substance. He does however identify a way to evaluate these two and other phenomena on the basis of what he calls "emergent intelligence." In other words, the future has to emerge, but no one knows where or how.

Elsewhere in Emergence, Johnson argues that it has already started in web sites like Slashdot.com, and in the form emergence theory and its applications. Explaining why the whole is at times smarter than the sum of its parts, Johnson offers surprising illustrations of feedback, self-organization, and adaptive learning.” How does a lively neighborhood evolve out of a disconnected group of shopkeepers, bartenders, and real estate developers? How does a media event take on a life of its own? How will new software programs create an intelligent World Wide Web?” His response comes in two parts. The organization, Johnson explains, is potent enough to…”even make the Web think — but it is both the promise and the peril of swarm logic that . . . you never really know what lies on the other end of a phase transition.”


Out of Control:

RCCS: View Book Info:
www.com.washington.edu/ rccs/bookinfo.asp?BookID=163&ReviewID=185

Swarm Intelligence:

Swarm Logic:

Theory of emergence: Building a new world from the bottom up:

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